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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
Subtitled A Theatre Essay, Mick Gordon and Paul Broks' On Ego is a fascinating exploration of human consciousness and identity. Inspired by neuropyschologist Broks' book Into the Silent Land and slickly directed by Gordon, founder of On Theatre company for which this is the debut production, the play makes complex scientific ideas accessible in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.
If the first scene resembles an illustrated lecture, that is because that's exactly what it is, as neuroscience lecturer Alex (Elliot Levey) addresses the audience directly (as his students). With a film image of his face in the background, Alex is intent on making the point that although "Behind every face -- we think -- there is a self" this is only because "The human brain is a story-telling machine, and the self is the story". Discounting the intuitive ego theory, he claims that in reality our lives are just a bundle of interconnected sensations and thoughts. He quotes Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who believed that "conscious experience is not caused by the behaviour of neurons, it is the behaviour of neurons".
This apparently rather clinical, detached view of humanity is, however, put to the test as Alex's wife Alice (Kate Miles) has a life-threatening brain tumour. Initially she merely uses incorrect words or can't remember the names of everyday objects, but as her condition deteriorates she becomes more unstable, alternating unpredictably between calmness and aggression. She also develops Capagras Syndrome, when the sufferer is deluded into thinking that someone they know very well is actually an imposter who is pretending to be that person, so Alice doesn't believe Alex is genuine.
In fact, she's right because the Star Trek-style teleporter experiment operated by Alice's estranged father Derek (Robin Soans), in which Alex is supposed to be totally vaporised then perfectly replicated in another place, goes wrong and Alex is simply duplicated. Derek darkly warns him that the existence of surplus individuals must be discontinued, i.e. the "original" Alex should allow himself to be killed, which despite Alex's lack of belief in individual identity, he is understandably loath to do.
The film sequences by the Honey Brothers, in particular the kaleidoscope of images representing Alex's memories which closes the play, are ingenious. But perhaps the most powerful image is when during his lecture Alex plucks from a bucket a "brain", a nice reference toYorick's skull in the graveyard scene of Hamlet, and comments on "worlds bound in this nut-shell".
Elliot Levey makes a likeably eccentric Alex, so passionate about scientific ideas that he even talks about them when he's proposing. Kate Miles movingly shows Alice losing her sense of identity and self, as her mind disintegrates. And when he realizes his daughter is in danger of dying, Robin Soans's Derek proves to be much more emotional than his dry professorial manner suggests.
The overall impression is that although scientists have discovered much about how the brain operates there will always be a sense of mystery and wonder about human consciousness.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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